San Francisco rock promoter Bill Graham was never one to mince words. As he says in the documentary Fillmore: The Last Days: "I can be the biggest putz in the world, and yell a lot. But I ain't dishonest. And I will always tell you how I feel."
Personalities like Graham tend to attract satirists, and sure enough, in 1990, a Graham impersonator arrived on the radio waves here in San Francisco. "Fillmore Bill" was a weekly regular on the morning show at KRQR, "The Rocker," poking laser-sharp holes into Graham's penchant for slang-ridden tirades in his unmistakable East Coast monotone.
Stories about "Fillmore Bill" have circulated for the past 25 years, but no clips of the routine have existed online -- until now. After writing a review of the Contemporary Jewish Museum's current exhibit Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, and wishing the show contained more of Graham's famous prickly personality, a strange thing happened: I got a Facebook message from "Fillmore Bill" himself.
As it turns out, "Fillmore Bill" was the brainchild of David Gross, a radio DJ who I've known personally for years. He agreed to digitize his old tapes of the KRQR routine, which is why you can now hear "Fillmore Bill" negotiating with a pizza delivery guy 26 years after it originally aired:
As a diehard Grateful Dead fan, Gross heard Graham's voice long before he ever knew what he looked like. Graham's introductions on Dead recordings were well-known in the tape-trader circuit, and one particularly heated rant to an audience member climbing the scaffolding during a New Year's Eve show at Winterland was amusing enough for Gross to whip up an impression.
Years later, Gross did the impression at a house party, where KRQR morning DJ Paul "Lobster" Wells suggested he bring it on the show. Soon Gross was satirizing Bill Graham every week in a segment called the "Bitch & Moan Monday," doing send-ups of Graham's more megalomaniacal side. A segment about Graham trying to take control of the chaos at Woodstock is, in fact, eerily close to actual events:
The character of "Fillmore Bill" became well-known, and Gross recalls doing it at comedy clubs and, once, at SF Comedy Day in Golden Gate Park, "in front of I don't know how many bazillions of people," he says. "I came out with my clipboard, and did a Bill Graham introduction -- a lot of people thought it was the real Bill Graham."
It was only a matter of time before the real Bill Graham and "Fillmore Bill" met, and sure enough, Wells had Bill Graham in the studio one Friday when Gross called in. The resulting exchange is pure gold, with Graham at one point telling Gross, "Can I make a suggestion? Don't press your luck." After the call, Graham even had to concede that the impression is accurate:
So, did Gross ever meet Bill Graham in person? Shortly after their exchange on the radio, Gross recalls, he did approach Graham at a show to introduce himself.
"I was backstage at a Dead concert at the Greek Theater in Berkeley," Gross says. "There I was, standing there, and Bill Graham was standing next to me. I said, 'Hey, remember me? I'm the guy who impersonated you on the radio.' He just looked at me, sized me up, and the lower lip came down, like Silvio on The Sopranos. And he said, 'OK.' That was it."
Gross is quick to clarify that though Graham had his enemies, his impersonation was a tribute and not a takedown. "I have nothing but respect and love for Bill Graham," he says. "He and the Grateful Dead are the reasons I moved out to San Francisco 36 years ago. The environment he created, the shows he did, and everything he's done for music in the Bay Area."
David Gross, known on-air as Big Dave, hosts "Rockabilly Roadhouse" and "Saturday Night Album Trax" on KRSH-FM in Santa Rosa. Paul "Lobster" Wells hosts "Lobster's Sunday Brunch" on KVRV-FM in Santa Rosa. Gross retired the Bill Graham impersonation after Graham's death in 1991.
'Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution' is on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through July 5. Details here.